It’s no secret that being an attorney is one of the more stress-heavy professions out there. There’s very little room to coast. Clients are demanding; hours are long; tiny errors can lead to major consequences. That said, the legal industry is self-selecting. Anyone who enters the field is aware, or at least should be, that stress and anxiety are part of the deal, and they’re able to handle, or even thrive, on these demands. Nonetheless, even the most Type-A among us can benefit from reducing the stresses of practicing law.
If you don’t keep your anxiety in check, it can creep up without your even being consciously aware of it and impact your professional performance, personal life, and even your physical health. So even if you’re a high performer in a particularly stressful legal practice area, you should consider implementing routines into your daily life to keep yourself calm and centered. Here are some ideas to start with.
Meditation has been used as an effective technique to mitigate stress more and more over the past few years. It’s not just for new age types anymore. A number of scientific studies have demonstrated the benefits of a regularly practicing mediation— not just for emotional well-being, but for intellectual focus and physical health.
If you haven’t tried meditation, you should. And if you tried it briefly and got bored or frustrated you should try again. Even twenty minutes of daily meditation has been shown to benefit just about anyone, and you can start with five-minute sessions and build from there. There are a number of different schools and styles of meditation practice out there; a good one to start with is vipassana, sometimes known as mindfulness meditation.
Developing a consistent meditation practice isn’t necessarily easy, especially for personality types common in the legal profession that thrive on constant stimulation and intellectual challenge. But we promise you that learning to meditate is easier than passing whatever bar exam(s) you have under your belt. There are a number of resources on the web, many of them free, as well as popular apps that make the learning curve more accessible.
A great way to prevent stress from building up during your workday is by adopting the Pomodoro Technique. And yes, it’s named after a tomato (the originator, Francesco Cirillo was inspired by a tomato-shaped kitchen timer). There are a lot of variations, but the basic idea is to take a five-minute break every half-hour during the workday. So, twenty-five minutes of focused work, then five minutes off, then repeat, and repeat again, and again. It’s best to use a timer, in part because you should take the breaks even if you’re ‘on a roll’ and would otherwise just keep going— doing so conditions your brain to get used to the rhythm which prevents stress build-up and allows you to maintain a steady and high level of productivity.
‘Touch Grass’ has become a common Gen-Z wisecrack/meme, aimed at people who are so online that they’ve lost touch with the real world. But they just might be onto something. Studies show that even brief encounters with nature improve our mood and decrease stress.
What this means in practice: spend time outdoors and in nature (or as close as you can get to it) every day. Okay, maybe you don’t have to touch the grass, but it would be good if you could see it. Of course, depending on where you live and work, this might not be so easy. But even walking through an urban park on your way to work, or eating lunch outdoors, can help.
And more generally, when you do take breaks during the workday (for instance, during the time-outs in your Pomodoro schedule you’re now dutifully implementing having read this blog post) *don’t* spend them at your computer or on your phone, scrolling through social media, online shopping, or swiping through another app of your choice. Do something that actually gets you out of your physical and mental work environment. Put a plant in your office you can gaze at (seriously)https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-home-guide/benefits-of-indoor-plants, or some other mood-enhancing piece of decor.
Even in this digital era, many attorneys’ offices are filled with files, papers, and books. For most people, this kind of environment has been shown to increase stress levels, even if we don’t realize it. In order to keep reducing the stresses of practicing law, it’s worth keeping your office or workplace spare and organized— though per the above, consider a plant or another piece or two of de-stressing decor. CAA founder Mike Ovitz, perhaps the most successful agent in the history of Hollywood— and talent representation might be an even more stressful occupation than lawyering— famously kept his office completely devoid of any clutter, down to the last piece of paper.
If stress or anxiety is a continuous presence in your life, you should consider therapy. Therapy and other forms of mental health counseling aren’t just for people with serious emotional disorders or traumatic experiences to process— almost everyone can benefit from talking to someone impartial about issues. You can even think of a therapist as the in-house counsel for your brain, if you want— a trained professional in your corner to advise you on managing the issues that inherently come up in life, and to help you through both tiny problems and existential crises.
Just to extend the metaphor even further, choosing a therapist is similar to choosing a lawyer, in that while there are innumerable candidates who qualify on paper, finding the right one for you rather than a merely adequate candidate can lead to significantly better results. So it’s worth taking the time to shop around and be choosy.
Here is more information about how to choose the right professional.
Take time off. This can mean different things, depending on your circumstances and your interests. Take an actual vacation where you explore somewhere new, somewhere relaxing, or both. Or leave the office before 7 PM once in a while to grab a drink or dinner with old friends. Read a novel or assemble a jigsaw puzzle in the evenings so that your brain isn’t continually cycling through the issues you dealt with at work that day.
Like most of the above, this might seem like an obvious suggestion. After all, nobody can work 24-7. And as a highly intelligent professional cohort, lawyers are smart enough to know that. Nonetheless, attorneys have a tendency towards ignoring the kinds of self-care that are essential to managing anxiety. Now that you’ve read this guide however, any excess stress you experience is hereby stipulated as res ipsa loquitur and solely due to your own negligence. Okay, just kidding— staying centered and calm in challenging situations isn’t simple or easy for anyone. But these tools will help you.